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Phyllis Coyne writes about “the Violence”, or the 36 year Civil War in Guatemala beginning in  1960. This is Part 2 of a two part series of emails reflecting on her time volunteering in Chajul and surrounding areas. You can read Part 1 here.

April 5th

If you are like me, you don’t know a great deal about the Civil War in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, also known as “the Violence”.  I am moved by what I am learning and all the Ixil Mayans that I am meeting who suffered greatly. I thought I would try to share some of my limited knowledge with you. As one elder said, “What happened must be remembered but few people are willing to listen.”  This is the story of the resilience of the human spirit, not just suffering.

In a nut shell, the 36 year armed conflict between the the United States backed military government and Castro and Che Guevara inspired by leftist guerrillas saw human rights violations, including a genocide of the indigenous Mayan population by the military.  Sources with the human rights office of the Catholic Church estimated the death toll from the counterinsurgency in 1981 at 11,000, with most of the victims Mayan peasants of the Guatemalan highlands; some sources estimate as many as 13,500 people were murdered.  Recently, the now infirm Ríos Montt, who was de facto president during the bloodiest period in the early ’80’s, was convicted of genocide; but his conviction was overturned on a technicality.

The Mayans in the western highlands were the last people  in Guatemala to be conquered by the Spanish in the 1600’s due to their remoteness and the defensive position offered by the mountains.  Their history, since that time, has been one of being killed, enslaved and oppressed.  They had never been given many rights before the atrocities of “the Violence”.

The area around Chajul was particularly effected starting in the mid-1970’s when the guerillas set up camp underground in the mountains there.  These insurgents strove to symbolize “social justice” and began calling itself the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.  The oppressed Mayans were inspired to demand their rights.  By 1981, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 members of Guatemala’s Mayan community actively supported the insurgency.  As a result, the army developed its concept of “enemy” without necessarily including the notion of armed combatants.  Officers were instructed to destroy all towns suspected of cooperating in the insurgency and to eliminate all sources of resistance. To quell the guerillas’ support, the army carried out large-scale mass killing of unarmed Mayans, burned villages and crops, and butchered animals, destroying the survivors’ means of livelihood.  Evie, a Immaculate Heart of Mary nun who has been doing social justice work here for 45 years, recently wrote that there were 600 massacres.  The bodies were dumped into mass graves, which added to the suffering because the Mayans here believe that one of their major purposes is the take care of their dead and they take careful care of grave sites.  Joan, who did PTSD work with the women, and Evie, who has documented some of these atrocities, help me have some idea of the suffering.

Joan has moving stories of when she took part in the exhumations of these mass graves in the mid ’90’s.  We hike to one of these sites.  A 3-hour hike over a high pass and steep descent thick with pine, madrone, oak and juniper takes us down into Acul, where in 1981, more than 100 people were tortured by the Army, then murdered, before the entire village was burned to the ground. The extreme beauty of the place made it difficult to consider its gruesome past.  I hope that the beauty of the environment are helping the once terrorized villagers to heal.

In some communities, the region’s military forced all residents to leave their homes and relocate to other villages for re-education.  Some families obeyed; others took refuge in the mountains. Those who fled to the mountains suffered from continuous attacks by the military that prevented them from getting food, shelter and medical care.  They also worried about what might be happening to friends and family in the village below.

Some families remained in hiding in the mountains in these conditions for 20 years until the peace accords in 1996 and returned to the loss of loved ones, as well as their land and livelihood.

exhumed skeleton

In Chajul, I met members of a family who fled after all the women and girls in the family had been raped by the army and barely escaped the troop that was returning to kill them all. This family lived in the mountains, hiding from the military and nearly starving, for 20 years.

Many of those who fled found others from different villages in the mountains and formed communities of people in resistance, commonly referred to as CPRs.  Seventy-four year old Evie, who I mentioned preciously in this email, worked in one of these communities, Pal, towards the end of “the Violence” and has many stories to tell.  We will be returning to Pal with her in two days for her last visit.

Ríos Montt, who I mentioned was responsible for some of the worst atrocities when he usurped leadership of the military government, was also a lay pastor in the evangelical Protestant Church of the Word and a religious fanatic.  During this period, many priests and nuns were equivocated as communists for speaking out for social justice and were  brutally murdered to the extent that the Catholic Church withdrew from much of Guatemala.  Meanwhile, Montt coerced many Mayans to leave the Catholic Church by saying that he would save them from being killed, if they converted to his church. They Mayans were told that if they were not with him, they would be killed.

Under the Arzú administration in 1996, peace negotiations were concluded, and the government signed peace accords ending the 36-year internal conflict.  Until recently talk of the armed conflict was suppressed and many were assassinated, such as Bishop Herrarde, for speaking or writing about what happened.  Now the people are talking more and there is a new makeup about, Casa de la Memoria, in Guatemala City that we visit.

a couple of young kids kick a ball in the dirt in front of their house

In the end, the Mayans are a living truth far greater than their tragic history.  I picture the children playing in the streets and adults laughing in Chajul.  No matter how much suffering has occurred and continues to occur, these people find ways, every day, to be happy.


Sister Evie, Joan and I travel to Pal, a former Community of People in Resistance (CPR) where Evie did her religious and social justice work for many years.  This community still does not have electricity, cell phone coverage, and people cook over an open fire on the earth floor in their 1 – 2 room wood-sided homes with smoke blackened walls.  Thanks to Evie, the community got a water tank and gravity fed piped water to the outside of people’s homes, which works part of the day, so that they no longer need to spend hours a day getting water or walking to the river to wash clothes or bath.  Joan and I walked the steep path down to the river to bath- have no fear we did not use soap- and, excluding the bathing time, it took us over an hour round trip going at a good pace and not carrying anything.  Even the mountain hardened farmers who,were returning up the steep trail laden with crops, were swearing, breathing hard and commenting on how hot it is, so the piped water saves a great deal of labor, as well as time.

We ride 8 hours packed like sardines in a chicken bus and two micros back to Chajul at 6:00 am from Guatemala City, then the next day we take the bus in the dark at 5:00 am to Pal.

When Evie left Pal in 2000, she still needed to walk 12 hours and ascend 3,000m or more to get her supplies in Chajul.  Just this year a dirt road was developed along a steep cliff to get back and forth.  However, in the rain, such as now, the bus slips around in the mud and cannot always make it all the way to Pal.  Our bus did a hair raising turn around on the one lane road at the edge of a cliff and then backed down the twisting road towards Pal at a disconcerting speed.  The bus still could not make it all the way to Pal, but we were at least closer and I did not need to carry my fully loaded pack as far through the rain and slippery mud. (I have to admit that I longed for those hardy mules and horses who carried our packs in Bhutan.) We were grateful that the bus stayed on the road, since that is not always the case.  For instance, a few years ago, Nicolas, who we are going to visit, had the misfortune of being on a bus on a paved road in the area that was going too fast to make a curve onto a bridge and ended up upside down.  He was one of the survivors, but ended up with broken ribs, a seriously injured eye, and an injured hip that prevented him from walking for awhile, which, as a farmer, meant that he had no income during that time.

This trip was worth it for the moving reunion of Evie and members of her former parish in Pal.  As we entered the community, many people enthusiastically ran up to hug Evie.  When Evie first saw Nicolas, the former leader of the village, catechist, cofrade (leader in Mayan Catholicism who, also keeps the Mayan calendar) and close friend, she was so moved that her eyes filled with tears as she asked about his wellbeing and that of his family.

We are fortunate to stay with Nicolas, his wife, Magdalena, and their 6 children in their two room earth-floored home.  Their daughters, Juanita and Magdalena, are kind enough to let me use their bed, a 3 – 4 inch foam pad on a elevated board. I successfully keep many of the the fleas at bay with my sleeping bag, but the persistent and noisy hen who wants to lay her eggs on the bed is harder for this bird phobic woman to deal with.  The chirping of chicks, clicking of hens, quacking of ducks, mariachi music and movements of the family wake me before they come, lately a rooster announces the dawn.

Life is hard here now.  The coffee and cardamom crops that are the main source of income failed this year, so Nicolas and his family are living on what they can grow.  Seventy-six year old Nicolas walks 1 1/2 hours up the mountain one way to harvest  malanga for dinner.  Joan and I would have helped him, but he persuades us that the walk would be too difficult.  Meanwhile his wife, Magdalena, walks down to a different field to harvest yucca.  We brought black beans, rice, noodles, dried milk, a protein and vitamin drink, sugar and some other food to supplement what they can grow.  The coffee that they grow, dry, roast on the comal- a round flat pan most associated with making tortillas- and then grind on a stone is wonderful.  Step aside Starbucks.  To make tortillas, one of their daughters, 14 year old Juanita, removes the kernels from the corn, then, one of their sons, 8 year old Nicolas, grinds the kernels into meal.  We were honored by their feeding us one of their tough old hens.  I must admit that I was sort of hoping that it was the pesky one who kept on insisting that she should share my bed, but it wasn’t.  One of their daughters, 10 year old Magdalena, wrings the ole gal’s neck, then Juanita sticks her in boiling water and has the feathers off lickety split.  Next, Juanita, and one of their sons, 3 year old Tomas Miguel, scrub some of the fat from the skin and wife Magdalena applies it on son Nicolas as a face lotion.

This family has had more than their fair share of challenges.  Nicolas wife, Magdalena, is sick and Nicolas had to sell 2 of his 4 cows to pay for the medicine.  A few years ago, one of their sons, Miguel, died after being kicked in the head by a mule. Despite the challenges of life here, their 2 oldest sons, both young adults, returned from school elsewhere saying that they loved life here because it is so beautiful and have no desire to leave their community.

Life was even harder during the “the Violence”.  Both Evie and Joan have interviewed victims from this gruesome period and I hear some men recount their experiences to the ever questioning Evie with tears in their eyes or outright crying.  My rudimentary Spanish only allows me to get the gist, but their emotion comes across loud and clear.

I will just tell a bit of Nicolas’ story here.  When Nicolas was mayor of a neighboring village and promoting the rights of Mayans, his wife was kidnapped and murdered.  After witnessing and escaping more than one massacre, he fled to the mountains and eventually ended up in Pal, which was a Community of People in Resistance, a community that was formed by many Mayans from different villages who spoke various Mayan languages and fled to the mountains to escape the violence.  He and his new wife, Magdalena, had to run into the jungle along with other members of the community when helicopters flew over and subsequently when the army found them and destroyed all that they had built.  While Joan and I are hiking in the surrounding mountainous jungle, I am amazed that the people could run in this slippery, steep terrain and not surprised to discover that many died in falls while fleeing.  The older adults could not flee in that treacherous terrain and often children returned to find their charred elders who had been burned alive. We pass areas where people were hastily buried and then exhumed in the mid to late ’90s.  It is hard to comprehend the depth of their suffering and remarkable to see their resilience.  Nicolas and his family sing a great deal and he still has a twinkle in his eyes.